Why you should never be too busy to learn

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For years, being busy has been a badge of honour among senior executives and managers.  If you were busy, you were doing your job, especially if you were working for long hours. But the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction. It is now bad news to be busy, especially if you are too busy to learn. Here’s why.

Being busy can be a sign of poor time management or prioritisation – We all have times that are busy, when everything seems to be going crazy, and there is no way to avoid it except to work harder. But nobody really needs to be busy all the time. If you are tending in that direction, you may be failing to prioritise correctly, to manage your time right, or even to say no when necessary.

Busy does not mean more productive – It is tempting to work longer when under pressure. But research shows that increasing your hours by 50%, say from 40 hours per week up to 60, does not result in a 50% improvement in productivity. At most, the gain is about 30%, and it is often less. In other words, working longer hours—being busier—is counterproductive.

Downtime is important for your health – Being busy all the time prevents us from relaxing. But doing nothing from time to time is vital for our ongoing mental and physical health. Your brain and your body both need ‘time off’ to process what has happened in your life, and to recharge. Downtime is a necessity, not a luxury.

Taking time out also helps your professional ability – Far from being bad for your professional life, you need downtime to improve. It is often when your brain is processing events that you get the ‘Eureka’ moments, where you suddenly see new connections and insights vital to achieving at home and work.

There may be a better way of doing things – Stopping to take stock, to look around and see the bigger picture, enables you to see if there might be a better way to proceed. This better way could save you huge amounts of time and/or money, but if you’re too busy running around like the hamster in the wheel, you won’t have time to stop and look.

Being busy makes you look confident, but it often means the reverse – Plenty of people make themselves busy because it makes them look confident and important. The trouble is that the endless search for more to do grinds you down. You have less time to do what matters, and then your confidence suffers. You can even start to feel that you will be worth nothing if you are not busy.

Busyness is often an excuse for not doing something – If you start from the point of view that nobody needs to be busy all the time, then using busyness as a reason not to do things starts to look like an excuse. It’s easy to say that you can’t do something because you don’t have time, because you’re too busy. But what you usually mean is that it is not a priority for you, which does not sound so good.

‘Busy’ deals with urgent, but not necessarily important – There is a key distinction between what is urgent—that is, it needs doing right now—and what is important—that is, it matters. Some things are both urgent and important, but often, the important things may not seem urgent. Learning, for example, is important: it matters for your long-term development, and staying healthy. But it is all too easy to let it slip in favour of something more urgent.

Busy can be designed to stop you thinking about what matters – Being busy is often used as a distraction from a gap in our lives, or to avoid talking or thinking about something important. But if you do that for too long, you may find that the gap is unbridgeable, or that you have forgotten how to think about things that are important. And that matters.

What makes you feel busy may not be worth doing – That is designed to be controversial. But if you’re honest, it’s probably also at least mostly true. When you’re doing something you enjoy, it doesn’t really feel like you’re busy. That means that being ‘busy’ is the opposite of doing things you enjoy. Learning is good, because it stretches you. Busy is usually mundane, and not stretching.

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